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A. F. Harrold, William Cowper - Slightly Foxed Issue 23

Just Getting on with It

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I remember hearing Leonard Cohen being interviewed some years ago, and he said, when asked whether he minded being referred to as a ‘minor poet’, that no he didn’t mind at all, in fact he had spent many delightful hours in the company of minor poets, such as Herrick. My ears pricked up when I heard that. For some reason I’d never imagined Cohen sitting down and reading seventeenth-century English clergymen, but of course I was wrong.

Somewhere on my bookcase there is an old three-volume ‘life and works’ of Robert Herrick, acquired when the poetry shelves of second-hand bookshops had become my habitual haunt, and filled with the most delightful gems, many of which remind us that a clergyman’s life was neither dour nor dull. When I was growing up, however, I had to make do with what was on the shelves at home, and what was on those shelves was a strange mix of things. Books, I suppose, had been accumulated haphazardly, but sparingly, by both my parents over the years, so there were trashy airport novels beside gardening manuals beside the complete Wordsworth beside Pasternak beside the illustrated bedside book of cats.

At some point during those teenage years I happened across the Everyman edition of the poems of William Cowper. It was my first Everyman, small and cloth-bound – dust-jacket long gone if it had ever had one. It was, it announced, ‘No. 872 of Everyman’s Library’, and it promised a list of the author’s other works at the end of the volume. The list wasn’t there. ‘The publishers will be pleased to send freely to all applicants a separate, annotated list of the Library.’ I thought that perhaps they wouldn’t, since this copy was dated 1931. But the promise, the idea, of the vista opened by the Library made me instantly aware that what I held in my hand was a lot less than the at least 871 other volumes that were out there somewhere. All I could do then, though, was investigate the little corner I’d found.

Wil

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I remember hearing Leonard Cohen being interviewed some years ago, and he said, when asked whether he minded being referred to as a ‘minor poet’, that no he didn’t mind at all, in fact he had spent many delightful hours in the company of minor poets, such as Herrick. My ears pricked up when I heard that. For some reason I’d never imagined Cohen sitting down and reading seventeenth-century English clergymen, but of course I was wrong.

Somewhere on my bookcase there is an old three-volume ‘life and works’ of Robert Herrick, acquired when the poetry shelves of second-hand bookshops had become my habitual haunt, and filled with the most delightful gems, many of which remind us that a clergyman’s life was neither dour nor dull. When I was growing up, however, I had to make do with what was on the shelves at home, and what was on those shelves was a strange mix of things. Books, I suppose, had been accumulated haphazardly, but sparingly, by both my parents over the years, so there were trashy airport novels beside gardening manuals beside the complete Wordsworth beside Pasternak beside the illustrated bedside book of cats. At some point during those teenage years I happened across the Everyman edition of the poems of William Cowper. It was my first Everyman, small and cloth-bound – dust-jacket long gone if it had ever had one. It was, it announced, ‘No. 872 of Everyman’s Library’, and it promised a list of the author’s other works at the end of the volume. The list wasn’t there. ‘The publishers will be pleased to send freely to all applicants a separate, annotated list of the Library.’ I thought that perhaps they wouldn’t, since this copy was dated 1931. But the promise, the idea, of the vista opened by the Library made me instantly aware that what I held in my hand was a lot less than the at least 871 other volumes that were out there somewhere. All I could do then, though, was investigate the little corner I’d found. William Cowper, perhaps better remembered now than when the selection that’s on my desk was published, was born in 1731, the son of a rector. ‘Educated at Westminster School and then articled to an attorney. Spent some time in an asylum, and on his recovery went to live in Huntingdon. Died in East Dereham in 1800.’ So ran the potted biography opposite the title page. To me as a young teenager there was something mysterious and dark and thrilling about this – the poetry of a madman. The introduction, by Hugh l’Anson Fausset, provided more detail. Cowper had suffered from depression exacerbated by his Calvinist religion. When at his lowest points, he believed God had personally abandoned him, and, as Fausset memorably puts it, ‘the inhuman dogma of predestination confirmed his pitiable delusion’. But what of the poems? Could they match this biography, could they live up to the despair I was expecting? Well, no, of course not. As Fausset without a moment’s apology states, although there are a few fine pieces among Cowper’s work, much of it is ‘second-best’; but then he adds that in ‘even the trivial and occasional, are to be found qualities that endear. . . because they were reflections of the man and not merely the accomplishment of a stylist’. And this is the same point that Cohen made about Herrick – a lot of it is guff, but it’s an honest human connection that has survived, through poetry, across centuries. As a teenager I turned first to poems such as ‘Lines Written during a Period of Insanity’ and ‘Mortals! Around Your Destin’d Heads’ which were examples of Cowper’s dark side, outpourings of his religious melancholia. But even at that age I think I could see that there was something frightfully adolescent and self-indulgent about his whining. Take ‘The Castaway’, for instance, a vivid description of a storm at sea and the struggles of a man lost overboard. His ship sails on, leaving him treading water somewhere behind in the dark night, buffeted and freezing, wind-whipped and filled with the knowledge that he’s lost. Cowper concludes the story thus:
No voice divine the storm allay’d No light propitious shone; When, snatch’d from all effectual aid, We perished, each alone: But I beneath a rougher sea And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.
Actually Bill, I felt like saying, the sailor probably did have the harder time. Yet the sound of those words, and indeed the spelling – the ‘whelm’d in deeper gulphs’ – caught both ear and heart and I chant those lines to myself still. Now, however, it is not the dark Cowper that I remember best, but the man whose trademark in a hundred other poems is a delightful wit, facility and lightness of character. What I really learnt from Cowper was not only that poetry can be in a whole life, but that the whole of life can be in poetry. In the same way that Walt Whitman sings everything he sees into a new existence, so Cowper writes on all themes and occurrences, from the most humdrum and quotidian to important events of the day. Even when the poems are uninteresting, as they sometimes are – third-rate, perhaps – the titles are often worth the entrance money alone. Take, for example, the very first poem in the book: ‘Verses Written at Bath on Finding the Heel of a Shoe’.
This pond’rous Heel of perforated hide Compact, with pegs indented, many a row, Haply (for such its massy form bespeaks) The weighty tread of some rude peasant clown Upbore: on this, supported oft, he stretch’d, With uncouth strides, along the furrow’d glebe,
. . . and on for forty-six lines, to an ending, subtler, but still reminiscent of his more melancholic poems . . .
But, that support soon failing, by him left On whom he most depended, basely left, Betray’d, deserted; from his airy height Headlong he falls; and thro’ the rest of life Drags the dull load of disappointment on.
Other titles that make me smile, at their specificity and their inanity, include: ‘Impromptu on Writing a Letter without Having Anything to Say’; ‘On a Mischievous Bull, Which the Owner of Him Sold at the Author’s Insistence’; ‘On the Benefit Received by His Majesty from Sea-Bathing in the Year 1789’; ‘Epigram on the Refusal of the University of Oxford to Subscribe to His Translation of Homer’; and ‘To a Young Friend, on His Arriving at Cambridge Wet, When No Rain Had Fallen There’. To prove himself an Englishman there are two ‘Epigrams on His Garden Shed’ and a host of poems about the flowers he presumably grew from there. But probably my favourite title for any poem I’ve ever encountered is not that of the plum poetic commission that we’re all waiting for – ‘Stanzas Printed at the Bottom of the Yearly Bill of Mortality of the Town of Northampton, Dec. 21, 1787’ (or ‘On a Similar Occasion for the Year 1788’) – but rather the fine-finned eulogy: ‘To The Immortal Memory of the Halibut on Which I Dined This Day’.
Where has thou floated, in what seas pursued Thy pastime? when wast thou an egg new-spawn’d, Lost in th’ immensity of ocean’s waste?
Another twenty-odd lines of quite fine descriptive pondering follow, then . . .
Thy lot thy brethren of the slimy fin Would envy, could they know that thou wast doom’d To feed a bard, and to be prais’d in verse.
It is a beautiful poem, with a title that tells you exactly what it’s about, and which says – this is your life, though it be but the day-to-day, why not sing it, turn it into song? Cowper has given me much pleasure and taught me the simple lesson, that if you want to write, then all you need do is write. Take his epic poem The Task, which is included in full in the Everyman edition, but which I never did, and never have, read to the end. One of his friends, Lady Austen, said, ‘Oh, you can never be in want of a subject; you can write upon any – write upon this sofa!’ And so The Task begins with a description of the evolutionary progress of things to sit on, from the simple stool, to the chair, to the chair with elbow rests, to the settee, to the sofa. It’s very, very silly, and yet there is something marvellous about the idea of it. I could write about so many of these poems, but I shall end with a pair that I remember my mother reading: ‘On a Spaniel, Called Beau, Killing a Young Bird’ and ‘Beau’s Reply’. Here not only does Cowper take an incident and memorialize it in verse, he then takes the other side and puts the other case. ‘On a Spaniel’ begins:
But you have kill’d a tiny bird, Which flew not till to-day, Against my orders, whom you heard Forbidding you the prey. Nor did you kill, that you might eat, And ease a doggish pain, For him, though chas’d with furious heat, You left where he was slain.
and ends with a moral:
My dog! what remedy remains, Since, teach you all I can, I see you, after all my pains, So much resemble man!
But then Beau replies, saying that he killed the bird because Nature’s voice was louder than his Master’s and he couldn’t really help it, though don’t you remember, Bill, when your linnet got out of its cage (‘Passing his prison-door’) the other day, I knew that you liked him and so I didn’t kill him? And so . . .
Let my obedience then excuse My disobedience now, Nor some reproof yourself refuse From your aggriev’d Bow-wow! If killing birds be such a crime, (Which I can hardly see) What think you, Sir, of killing Time With verse address’d to me?
Cowper knew exactly what he was doing, that these occasional and trivial pieces were simply that – an expression of a writer, just getting on and writing, for the pleasure of it. And the fact that they’ve all remained in print to this day is an added bonus, for those who read poetry – because there is much pleasure to be had among the minor poets and a lot to be learnt from the simple second-rate.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 23 © A. F. Harrold 2009


About the contributor

A. F. Harrold is one of England’s leading contemporary unknown minor poets, with several books to his name and a lot of time on his hands.

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